Volcanic ash cloud grounds flights over Britain

| Apr. 15, 2010 |

Published by The Times

Raf Sanchez, Russell Jenkins and Girish Gupta

Britain became a no-fly zone today as a spreading cloud of volcanic ash headed south from Iceland forcing northern European airports to shut in its wake.

In the first extended closure of British air space in living memory, millions of airline passengers face travel chaos as National Air Traffic Services (Nats) said no civilian planes would fly until at least 7am on Friday morning because of the eruption in Iceland.

"The cloud of volcanic ash is now spread across the UK and continuing to travel south. In line with international civil aviation policy, no flights other than agreed emergencies are currently permitted in UK controlled airspace," a spokesman from Nats said.

"Following a review of the latest Met Office information, NATS advises that these restrictions will remain in place in UK controlled airspace until 0600 tomorrow, Friday 16 April, at the earliest."

They will not be able to say until 8pm this evening whether flights can begin taking off again tomorrow morning.

The shutdown is even more drastic than in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks when transatlantic flights were grounded and London's skies were closed.

Airports were deserted and only a few hundred people remained at Heathrow this afternoon as the authorities urged passengers to return home or not to set out.

The plume of almost Biblical proportions was hurled into the sky above Iceland following an eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which surged back into life on Tuesday.

Only emergency flights are being allowed to take off and a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter was brought in to fly a critically-ill patient from Scotland to London, landing in Regent’s Park at 9am. The female patient was taken by ambulance from hospital in Dunfermline, Fife, to the HMS Gannet and flown south from there.

The huge ash cloud threatens to turn the journeys of thousands of families into a nightmare.

Hayley Bettany, 25, arrived at Manchester Airport this morning with her fiancé Graham Brien, 36, en route to their beach wedding in the Dominican Republic.

At 11am the couple, travelling with nine guests and the bride’s dress, were told their flight would not be taking off.

Ms Bettany told The Times: “We were going away to the Caribbean to get married. We’ve been planning this trip for 16 months now a volcano has erupted and spoilt our dream.”

The pair had a reception planned for their return to the UK. “How can you have a reception when you’re not married?”

The Rev. John Mackerness, the full-time chaplain of Heathrow Airport, was more philosophical. He told The Times:

“It’s totally out of people’s control. There no point in getting angry. There are no baggage handlers, no management to complain about.

“I’ve had people say to me: ‘It’s an act of God,’ and I guess I’m just reminding them that God is here in the mess as well as in the volcano.”

The volcanic cloud severely limits visibility but could also endanger the aircraft if flown through, clogging the engines with molten glass. No flights are reported to have been caught in the cloud itself.

In 1982, British Airways Flight 9 flew through a similar cloud following an eruption of Mount Galunggung in Java, Indonesia. A strange St Elmo’s Fire-like light had appeared on the cockpit windscreen and a sulphur-smelling smoke started filling the passenger cabin.

As the flight crew struggled to control the Boeing 747, Captain Eric Moody famously addressed the passengers, saying: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

The pilot glided through the cloud and managed to restart the engines once he was through the dust, narrowly averting disaster.

Today, speaking to The Times, Mr Moody said: “They copied what we did and published it in every pilot’s manual in the world."

Forecasters believe the current cloud could take a number of days to disperse.

Paul Simons, The Times weatherman, said high pressure close to Iceland has swept the ash down to the UK on northwesterly winds. "Ironically, that same high pressure has also given us days of dry, fairly bright weather.

"As the centre of the high pressure slowly slips southwards it should help to ease the plume of dust away from our airspace, at least for a day or so.

"There are signs that if the volcano carries on erupting the same pressure system could bring more dust to the UK later in the weekend or next week. And, even though the dust cloud can’t be seen from the ground, it may produce some spectacular sunsets as the dust scatters the sunlight low in the sky."

There are concerns that the plume of dust from the volcano could carry on for some time. The last time that Eyjafjallajokull erupted in 1821 it is thought to have continued for two years, Mr Simons said.

Airspace over Finland has also been closed until 3pm tomorrow, while Norway’s Oslo airport has shut. Danish airspace will shut at 5pm today and the skies over Holland are closed. Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and other French airports announced this afternoon that they would shut.

Airports in Iceland, however, remain open.

Hjordis Gudmondsdottir, a spokesperson for Isavia, Iceland's air traffic authority, said: "The ash is going out to the ocean and to Europe so our airports aren't really affected. It's almost funny, except it isn't, obviously."

Between 700 and 800 people were evacuated from their homes in the remote, lightly populated area near Eyjafjallajokull as melted glacier water caused severe flooding.

Matt Dobson, a forecaster for MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: “The concern is that as well as the eruption, the jet stream passing through Iceland is passing in a south easterly direction, which will bring ash to the north of Scotland and Denmark and Norway. But it is impossible to say how much ash will come down.

“It could be a threat in these areas from now until tomorrow or Friday.”